50 years later, over 100 interned Japanese-Americans due diplomas

October 07, 1993|By Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- Grace Takahashi Mori was just one semester short of a high school diploma in 1942 when her family and thousands of other Japanese-Americans were ordered into internment camps to live out World War II.

Fifty years later, what should have been happy memories of Ms. Mori's days at Roosevelt High School have turned to darker images of her family's abrupt departure from their Boyle Heights neighborhood, and of the barbed wire and armed sentries at Manzanar.

"I was really sad to leave Roosevelt and all of my friends," Ms. Mori, now 69, said this week. "It was so devastating for me. I remember we had to discard everything -- they let us bring with us only what we could carry.

"What we couldn't sell we gave to our neighbors."

On Sunday, Ms. Mori and more than 100 other Japanese-American classmates will finally receive what the internment denied them 50 years ago -- their high school diplomas.

In marking its 50th class reunion, Roosevelt High School's class of 1943 will present 105 diplomas -- dated 1943 and virtually identical to those handed out 50 years ago -- to Japanese-American students who finished their schooling at makeshift internment camps.

There were 131 Japanese-American students, most of them nisei, or second-generation Japanese who were born in the United States, in Roosevelt's Class of '43. A reunion committee was able to find information about 120 -- including 15 who had died.

Richard Tafoya, co-chairman of Roosevelt's reunion committee, said that more than 60 percent of those who were located are expected to attend Sunday's reunion.

Some of the former students, such as Toyoko Tsuchida Masamitsu, will come with mixed feelings.

"It is nice gesture. But it doesn't restore what I lost back then," Ms. Masamitsu said. "There was a lot of anger at that time. It's been a long time now, and after 50 years it's like water under the bridge.

"I think I closed that chapter of my life a long time ago," she said.

Other students, such as Sue Fukutake Jang of suburban Glendale, say the chance to get a diploma from Roosevelt is a dream come true.

"I didn't think I would ever have that privilege," she said. "I was stunned when I got a letter saying that I would be getting my diploma."

Ruben Zacarias, a former Boyle Heights resident and deputy superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District, will hand out the diplomas. He said it will be a highlight of his 30-year career with the district.

"What we are doing here is bringing closure to an unfortunate incident," Mr. Zacarias said. "It is also a symbol of what we all have to do in Los Angeles -- and that is to heal the wounds, past and present."

Mr. Tafoya said that when he realized how many of his classmates and friends had not received their Roosevelt diplomas, he contacted Mr. Zacarias, his friend from the old Boyle Heights neighborhood.

"It was very depressing. Even though we were at war with Japan, these were loyal Americans. We wanted to do something nice for them," Mr. Tafoya said.

Roosevelt High School had the largest nisei population in the district at the time, and Boyle Heights was then the most multicultural section of Los Angeles, Mr. Zacarias said.

"As a young boy, I stood there and watched some of these Japanese-American students and their families loaded up on Army trucks and taken away. It was a very sad memory because even at that age, I felt that these were Americans," Mr. Zacarias said.

"Ironically, many of these students who will be receiving their diplomas fought with the 442nd infantry which is the most decorated." Mr. Zacarias said.

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